The Christmas time proposal between Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley is absolutely the most romantic scene in television. Buy why? Let’s take a look…
Since Downton Abbey’s final episode aired March 6, 2016 in the U.S., I haven’t had much of an opportunity to revisit showrunner Julian Fellows’ smash hit until yesterday. Mary and I made our way up to Boston, MA to take in Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, and it resuscitated feelings in me about Downton that I had long forgotten.
Perhaps it’s age, maybe there was just such great television on in the mean time, or it’s the fact that our two children have run our respective lives into a blurred haze of dance recitals and mac & cheese dinners.
So during our much needed day date, it was invigorating to meet up with all my favorite Crawley’s, their love, their drama, and of course, the Dowagers endless quips.
I am of the firm belief that television should be defined by how it makes one feel. Irrespective of whatever the critics said about Downton’s later seasons, I can happily admit that the show made me FEEL in many different ways.
But no scene made me FEEL more than Matthew’s proposal to Mary Crawley. It was nothing short of pure magic. Let’s take a moment to revisit it here:
The snow, the Christmas party in the background, getting down on one knee, the kiss, the twirl, that house. Oh, that house. It’s romanticism at it’s best.
But why is it so memorable? What makes Matthew’s proposal to Mary the romantic scene in TV history? Well it’s simple. And complicated….
Let’s get this out of the way right off the top – yes, it’s essentially a British soap opera with two gorgeous actors, in front of a gorgeous home, saying gorgeously written lines, doing gorgeous things. I get it. It’s a fracking fairy tale.
But, damn it, there’s just something so special to it. It’s more than just actors reciting lines. It’s the fate of two people colliding despite the many odds set against them. It’s classes merging in unexpected ways, and most importantly, it’s the fabric of a family trying desperately to remain intact in spite of time and differing values trying to rip it apart. On the other hand though, there’s an aspect that goes undervalued in many ways – a sense of redefinition.
In order to make sense of this redefinition, we have to briefly go back in Downton time…
Matthew had returned from World War 1, broken and in despair, and in total depression after the passing of his fiance. Mary, engaged to newspaper man Richard Carlisle, was essentially being held captive by him to prevent her dirty secret of Mr. Pamuk’s death from reaching the papers. With her life in shambles, she decides that heading to America is the right choice to avoid the obvious gossiping and shame to her family name.
Despite the fits and starts of their love, and a rather tricky fight with Mr. Carlisle, Matthew goes to comfort Mary. Perhaps seeing the err in his ways, or realizing he just can’t live his life without her, he finally decides to change his life forever. In doing so, two people with completely different backgrounds, different social standings, different goals, and different perspectives on life come together to create a existence of something wholly new.
Love is tricky to write for writers. What makes love believable? What makes it worthy of our time as viewers?
The funny thing is that love between two people is often similar to the relationship between two foes or a protagonist/antagonist. Think Batman and The Joker. They live separate lives, and are in total conflict, but there is something lyrical about their collective existence. In an odd and perverse way, they can’t live without each other. They drive, motivate, and in most cases, complete each other. Without one, the other would simply cease to exist.
Both concepts of love and hate ride the same line of what it takes to forge a compelling relationship.
Both lover and antagonist have to bring out the best and worst of their partner. They have to enhance strengths, and reinforce weaknesses. They have to make each other take action in ways they would otherwise never do, and in many cases, they have to be the complete opposite of each other to make for a balanced existence.
Mary and Matthew are the perfect pairing for each other because the are, indeed, so different from each other – but are both honest enough to recognize they’ve made terrible mistakes with each other. So when they finally meet in the snow, at the lowest of lows during the Christmas party, they can finally have discourse as equals. Both flawed. Both damaged by their errors. Both vulnerable enough to show their true selves.
It’s at this point we can see why it’s the most romantic scene in television history.
Matthew’s proposal to Mary is more than just any proposal. The real beauty of it is the simple and humble beginning: Matthew simply asks Mary to stay. Stay in England.
It’s her choice.
There’s no pomp and circumstance. There’s no rule book. There’s no expectation baked into the question like a marriage proposal has. It’s just a question that has been boiled down to it’s very core – will you stay in my life?
In a place steeped in tradition, and obsessed with the perpetual formality of life, both Mary and Matthew, for the briefest of moments, see past all that. They do the opposite of what is expected of them. Away from everyone, the drama, the family, and the stone, rigid and cold walls of Downton itself, Mary and Matthew start their own journey.
Mary’s choice to stay is not preordained, it’s not predicated upon who inherits Downton, it’s simply a choice to stay for the sake of staying. Staying to be with the man she loves most. So amidst the party celebrating Christmas and the birth of Christ going on in the house — where both the members of the family and servants come together for one of the few times of the year – we have our own rebirth with Mary and Matthew.
Of course there is always a little room for tradition, and even though Mary asks Matthew to propose properly, we chuckle because we know it’s just a formality. After saying yes to his proposal, Mary brings Matthew to her while gentle wisps of wind and snow surround their embrace.
But a small detail still remains – a visual cue that typifies their love – the literal fire between them. Because while they are within the grasp of winter, the life giving flame that is both literally and figuratively blocked in between them is the hint of their future.
Snow signifies winter, the closing of the year, and the death of all the life from summer and spring. To that end, they are together, in the dark, outside of the comforting confines of Downton Abbey. But the fire burns brightest when the dark is at its peak. So when Mary walks out of that house, she is at her darkest moment. When Matthew goes to comfort her, it’s also his darkest and lowest moment.
But with that embrace and the fire between them, Matthew and Mary come together create the brightest moment out of what was once their darkest day. Creating their own warmth. Creating their own life.
So we are left with the two twirling in a circle, reminiscent of a wedding ring – creating an unbreakable bond that is neither beginning in one place or ending in another. It is eternal. As the two turn, we pan back to see the full picture – our two lovers in the snow, in front of the fire, dwarfed by Downton. How small they are in comparison to Downton signifies how their love a part of a larger world yet to come, and how they are only going to grow with each other.
Downton, the circle, the fire, the snow, our two lovers have all created something entirely new. They have redefined who and what they can be. Together.
That is why Matthew’s proposal to Mary is the most romantic scene in television history.